TOPPENISH, Wash. — When the authority to enforce many types of criminal and civil cases involving tribal members was returned this week to the Yakama Nation by the federal government, Tribal Council Chairman JoDe Goudy treated it like the Fourth of July.
“I was sitting on my porch with a sparkler in my hand,” he told a crowd of more than 300 gathered Friday at the at the Yakama Nation Heritage Cultural Center for ceremonies commemorating the move called retrocession.
For the first time since 1963, many cases involving tribal members on the 1.2-million-acre reservation that have been handled by municipal police, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers and sent to state courts are now in the hands of tribal police and tribal courts.
Tribal leaders said the ability to govern their own lands is at the heart of sovereignty.
“In 1855, our past leaders were promised powers over our lands by the federal government,” Goudy said in a statement. “These promises were broken time and time again. It is a significant day in the lives of the Yakama people as the right to govern our lands and keep our people safe is finally realized.”
On Friday, federal, state and county officials as well as area law enforcement leaders gathered with tribal members and leaders to acknowledge the historic move in which the tribe takes another step in self-governance.
Clad in white buckskin and a war bonnet, Goudy said the transition of authority on the reservation, which officially took place Tuesday, has so far gone smoothly in contrast to skepticism from those who opposed it.
“The other night, the sky did not fall; chaos did not ensue,” he said. “We don’t want to simply exist. We wish to thrive; we wish to grow. This is a significant step toward that.”
Friday’s events opened with a Washat service, a traditional Yakama religious ceremony. Deerskin drums thundered as ancient tribal songs echoed.
Afterward, tribal leaders acknowledged the many people, including former Tribal Council Chairman Harry Smiskin, and councilwomen Terry Goudy-Rambler and Athena Sanchey, who worked hard to see the move through.
“There were others — It took a lot from a lot of people in the background,” tribal Councilman Virgil Lewis said. “There’s still a lot of work that has to be done by this nation, by the Office of Legal Counsel with retrocession.”
Moving forward won’t be flawless, as transitions usually come with learning curves and fine-tune adjustments, said Smiskin, a former tribal police officer.
“I’m sure there will be some missteps by our government,” he said. “But our responsibility will be to acknowledge these missteps and move ahead.”
The Yakamas aren’t the only tribe to have its criminal and civil jurisdiction handed to an outside government. The federal government under Public Law 280 transferred the authority of many tribes to states, including Washington.
Although the Yakama Nation retained some criminal jurisdiction over its members, such as misdemeanor crime and traffic violations, it will now have full jurisdiction over most crime and in five civil areas — compulsory school attendance, public assistance, domestic relations, juvenile delinquency and operations of motor vehicles on public roads and highways on the reservation. Major crimes, such as murder, will continue to be handled by the FBI.
Criminal cases involving non-Indian suspects or non-Indian victims will still be subject to state prosecution.
Officers from the sheriff’s office, Toppenish, Wapato and Union Gap, as well as the tribe, will receive a special federal commission allowing them to detain suspects outside their jurisdiction for investigation. Tribal police will also still be able to issue civil infractions to nontribal members, as they have been able to do previously.
The transition has been in the works since 2012, when the Yakamas became the first tribe in the state to seek the return of the legal jurisdictions the state claimed in 1963.
In October 2015, the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the move. The tribe has hired 10 new police officers in recent years and the BIA provided $149,000 to the Yakama Tribal Court to purchase equipment, hire a court administrator and provide additional training, a federal official wrote in an earlier letter to the county.
The process the Yakamas went through to obtain retrocession is now outlined in an exhibit at the Yakama Nation Museum.
A timeline beginning with the 1855 Treaty and a painting depicting the treaty talks and ending with the date retrocession took effect covers a museum wall.
“I’m going to try to keep it up for at least six months,” said museum anthropologist and registrar Heather Hull. “What we’re trying to do is get interest from the public.”
Having the Yakamas reclaim criminal and civil authority over themselves within the boundaries of the reservation — including in the municipalities of Toppenish and Wapato — hasn’t come without controversy.
In Klickitat County, the move has reignited controversy over the reservation’s southwest boundary.
The Yakamas have long maintained that it includes the Glenwood Valley and the unincorporated town of Glenwood, situated northwest of Goldendale.
An original map of the reservation based on the 1855 Treaty includes the area. Federal officials said the map was misplaced not long after the treaty was signed, and subsequently the area was opened to settlement.
Klickitat County officials have long disputed the Yakamas’ claim, contending the rural area composed of some 600 people is outside the reservation boundary.
Earlier this week, Klickitat County filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking an order establishing that the area is outside the reservation, which would prevent the tribe from asserting any law enforcement authority there.
Klickitat County Prosecuting Attorney Dave Quesnel said the lawsuit was filed after the county was informed by the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the tribe would have jurisdiction in the area.
The area wasn’t fully addressed during retrocession talks, he said.
“We had no choice but to file the lawsuit,” he said. “We couldn’t even find a partner willing enough to discuss the matter.”
Despite the controversy, Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer and Klickitat County Commission Chairman David Sauter were at the event.
“We’re here to show respect for the tribe,” Sauter said. “This is their day. Self-governance is a right of democracy. We’ve never disputed that.”
He said the boundary issue is between Klickitat County and the federal government, not the tribe.
“And that’s the reason for the lawsuit, to get some clarity on the issue,” he said.
He said he had not discussed the matter with the tribe, nor did he plan to at Friday’s event.
“This is their day of celebration,” he said. “I don’t want to have any issues of dispute today. I don’t think that would be appropriate.”
Aside from the boundary dispute, Councilman Lewis said the move is to ensure overall public safety.
“That means everybody — not just Yakamas,” he said. “That’s our goal, to protect everyone living on the Yakama reservation.”